“Why is Miss Black coming?” Madari asked Sophia.
He had followed her through to her bedroom and received a frown for the liberty, but didn’t want to ask in front of Alex, who was in the living room with Jahni, waiting to leave for the Sami concert. Trying not to trespass too far into a place he no longer had any right to be, he stayed by the door.
“I had four tickets,” Sophia said, taking out the earrings she was wearing. They’d gone out of fashion in the past ten minutes or something, Madari supposed
“And you have many friends, some of whom I’m sure would have enjoyed being Kahil’s, ah, date for the night.”
“That’s true,” she said, rummaging in her jewellery case. “But I want to get to know her if I’m going to spend so much time with her. Besides, you can watch her work, assess her some more.”
“But she doesn’t need to work,” Madari argued. “You’re with me and Kahil. Why would you need a bodyguard?”
“You can’t watch the concert and act as my guard at the same time.” She turned to him, the earrings she’d put on catching the soft, warm light. “Do you think my hair is too formal? Perhaps I should let it down.” She turned back to the mirror.
“We’re going to be late.” He looked at his watch.
“Relax, Faris.” She pulled out a clip, shook her hair out and picked up a brush. Madari swallowed hard. The swish of the brush strokes as she restyled her hair was the only sound in the room for a few moments. He watched her in the mirror, remembering when he’d been able to run his hands through her hair, muss it from its usual perfection. Remembering how it looked rumpled after sleep, after sex.
She caught his gaze in the mirror and they held that for a moment, both of them serious. Could she be regretting her choice to throw him over? It was the only choice a proud woman like her could make, but did she miss him as he missed her? If Kahil and Alex weren’t waiting for them only yards away, would he dare to stride over to her, slide a hand around her waist and draw her close, whispering to forget the concert?
How many people who knew them honestly believed they were broken up anyway? How many assumed they still slept together? And if people assumed that, why should they not… on a more ad-hoc basis than before?
Ad-hoc made him think of Kahil hitting the mat on his back. Only in Madari’s mind he was the one to take him down and they were laughing and he certainly didn’t threaten him with a gun afterwards.
My god, sometimes he felt like a schizophrenic. Just who was he? What kind of man? Sophia turned from the mirror, putting down her hairbrush and Madari reached behind himself for the doorknob before she smiled at him, as she picked up a gauzy green wrap from the bed.
“You’re right, we’re late. We’d better go.”
Madari held the door open for her as she walked through it, giving him a nod of thanks. He didn’t touch her.
“Those are nice earrings,” Jahni said to Alex as they sat waiting for Madari and Sophia to emerge from the bedroom. She looked up from tickling the cat behind the ears.
“They were a gift from a client in Dubai.”
It didn’t sound very professional to accept gifts from clients. Perhaps she saw disapproval on his face as she went on.
“More a reward. After a kidnap attempt on his daughter.”
“Which you stopped?”
She nodded and the emerald studs in her ears sparkled in the light. “The first time I killed a man. Very different from working in London.”
Her tone was quite level and she wore stones she’s been given as a reward for killing a man. Jahni’s emotions warred between marvel at her calm about it and a chill at the same thing. The first time I killed a man. It took him back such a long way, to a night on a lonely desert road. The first time. More that night and so many since then. He’d never counted. How many had she killed? She said “first time”, so did that mean there were others?
“We’re going to be late,” Jahni said, looking at the clock – Madari and Sophia had been in the bedroom over five minutes – he thought it just as the two of them emerged. Sophia’s hair was now loose around her shoulders and Madari looked rather flushed. Jahni’s fingernails dug hard into his palms.
“We’d better hurry,” Madari said, not looking at Jahni. “We’ll miss the start.”
Alex was a little unsubtle Jahni thought. Personally, he’d long ago learnt how to case a room without appearing to do so. Alex did the same as him, noting the exits, the occupants, looking for threats, but it was more obvious that’s what she was doing. Obvious to him at least. Perhaps it was deliberate though. She knew he and Madari were still assessing her abilities. Was she putting on a show for them?
The lobby at the concert hall had five exits, two of them to the outside, two into the concert hall, one leading to the toilet facilities. Jahni saw few threats in there. In fact, there were few men there. Some husbands accompanying wives, rather more fathers with daughters. He smiled at a harassed looking man with four girls, their ages ranging from around ten to late teens. Perhaps Alex should give him her business card, and next time he could stay at home and let her take his daughters to the concert.
But most of the people in the lobby were women and girls. This Sami was certainly popular with women and looking at the posters, Jahni knew that wasn’t just about his music. Personally he was pretty indifferent to the music. But the man? Jahni recognised the good looks, but he needed a haircut, and didn’t he have rather a weak jaw line?
Sophia went to the ladies cloakroom, Alex accompanying her – that logic again. Madari and Jahni could certainly protect her, but they couldn’t go in there with her. Madari and Jahni waited and Jahni felt abruptly self conscious in this room full of women, here because of the singer’s handsome face. Madari held Sophia’s green wrap over his arm, and Jahni wondered if it served as a kind of signal – that he was only here to accompany a woman.
“Alex seems to know her business,” Jahni said to Madari.
“Yes,” Madari agreed. “I’m starting to feel better about her. She did fine sparring against you, though I’m still not sure about in the field.”
“She said that if she actually had to fight a man she’s already failed in her job. That she’d rather stop them before they get close enough for that.”
“Good point,” Madari said.
“I know when I was your bodyguard I felt the same way. Anyone getting close to you should only be there with my permission.”
“You were very good at it.” He sipped ice water, looking a little flushed. “It’s very warm tonight. So, you and Miss Black are getting on well?”
“I think we’ll end up seeing a lot of her.”
Jahni frowned. Would they really? Did Madari still see Sophia often enough that he’d also be seeing a lot of Alex? And did that mean he’d have to bring Jahni along a lot of the time as a ‘date’ for Alex, to maintain the appearance of her being a friend of Sophia’s rather than a guard?
Oh, no, wait. Madari wasn’t going to start matchmaking again, was he? Since Jahni had so far failed to propose marriage to Karen Bennett, would Madari start trying to get him to do so to Alex? He hoped not. She had a body that certainly rivalled Karen’s, though Karen was more shapely where Alex was almost masculine. Karen was prettier, and smiled more. Alex wore her hair short – for her job, he suspected, long hair could be grabbed – and her face, while not unappealing, was almost permanently wary. Quite nice hazel eyes though.
But, it wouldn’t be appropriate anyway. If she was a professional about her job she wouldn’t get involved with a friend of her client. That could cause her to be distracted on the job, taking more notice of her lover than her client.
“She’s coming back in to show me her shooting,” Jahni said, realising Madari was waiting for him to answer.
“Good.” Madari looked pleased. Oh, for sure he was readying his cupid bow and arrow again. Jahni sighed. Oh, Faris, give it up.
“Backstage passes?” Madari said to Sophia. “You really do have contacts.”
The concert over, the four of them headed backstage, into the bustling maelstrom behind the scenes. Both Alex and Jahni instantly looked unhappy, then calmed down to simple wariness. There were a lot of people around, but they took no notice of Sophia’s party, all rushing around, working, calling out arcane jargon about lighting and stage sets. A woman brushed past the group both carrying and draped with gaudy costumes, a riot of brilliant colours. Men heaved around lights, amplifiers, musical instruments. Performers moved among them, their costumes and make up surprising Madari. What had looked so fine on stage was bigger, cruder, bolder up close, all subtlety gone. Clothes that had looked like fine silks, satins and linen were more obviously simply costumes made of synthetic cloth. What looked like embroidery revealed as nothing but painted or printed patterns.
Sami himself was an exception. They came into his large dressing room, which was full of people, to find the young man holding court, surrounded by admirers. His clothes were more obviously the real thing, a long black linen shirt, with silver embroidery, that he’d been wearing on stage. After his performance on this hot night it stuck to him in places. His hair was limp, the stage make-up around his eyes smudged and blurred. He took long drinks from a water bottle between talking and laughing with the people around him.
He looked older than he did on the posters, though certainly no more than thirty. The dark smudges of the melted make-up around his eyes, gave him a tired and bruised look, that provoked a surge of protectiveness in Madari. He shook that away as ridiculous.
Sophia manoeuvred them deftly through the crowd and spoke to a man there that Madari recognised from some of Sophia’s parties. The man introduced her to Sami and in turn she introduced her party. A look of surprise flickered across Sami’s face at the mention of Madari and Jahni’s names. But he covered that with a smile and gave them both a firm handshake, thanking them for coming to his show. Alex got a wider smile, as wide as the one he’d given Sophia, and a small bow of his head.
She responded with no more than politeness, before going back to watching the crowd around them, especially anyone behind Sophia. Sophia herself was more than polite, Madari saw, his eyes narrowing a bit as Sami turned back to her and began asking if she’d enjoyed the music. She positively simpered, clearly taken with him. Well, that was understandable. But he’d seen her around good-looking young men before, she was usually quite calm and collected.
He watched them closely, watched the singer working her and the rest of the people nearby. Himself too, he knew, catching the man’s eye from time to time, and receiving a smile. The smiles lit Sami’s face in a way that made up for the results of his exertion. And the flush in his cheeks, the light sheen of sweat on his tanned skin, his hair heavy with it… they had a certain appeal. How easy to picture him lying on white cotton sheets flushed like this, hair spread on the pillow, still breathing hard, eyes hazy from satisfied desire.
Absurd. He was getting annoyed with Sophia’s simpering at Sami and he was probably doing the same thing himself. And those eyes were not hazy, but bright and intelligent. Did he sense Madari’s attraction? Being in show business, being so handsome, he must surely have been propositioned by men. Madari took a deep breath and looked away from that perceptive gaze, looked at Jahni instead, standing behind Sophia, not looking at Sami. Looking at Madari. Looking at Madari looking at Sami.
If Sami couldn’t detect Madari’s interest, he’d bet Jahni could, but he couldn’t read Jahni’s eyes. Suspicion? Jealousy? What about his own jealousy? Sami was still paying close attention to Sophia, that she was apparently enjoying. But surely she didn’t have any real interest in him? She had too much class to make a fool of herself over a younger man. That thought made him want to laugh at himself. Did he have the same amount of class?
Sophia was telling Sami about the charity now. Madari doubted she was soliciting a donation, usually subtler about that. But charities found celebrity endorsements useful.
“We raise money to send local children with rare conditions abroad for specialist medical treatment,” she explained. “With rare conditions there may be only one or two places in the world that offer a treatment.”
“That’s a very worthy cause, Signora,” Sami said. His face grew serious. “I had a sister who died of leukaemia when we were children. There wasn’t anything the doctors could do for her in the end.”
Sophia blushed and looked mortified. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that. I never intended to…”
“Of course not.” Sami touched her hand very briefly, a reassuring smile on his face now. “Did you say you’re having a fundraising party next week?”
“Yes, at the Hilton. You’re very welcome to come, if you’re not busy that night.”
He laughed, “Signora, I’m always busy. My father used to say I became a musician so I could sleep all day. I’m still waiting for even one such day.” The people around him laughed. “But I will make the time to come to your party at least for an hour.”
“Oh that would be wonderful,” Sophia said, a delighted smile on her face. It would almost certainly increase the attendance too, Madari thought, if she started putting the word out among her network.
“Will you be at the party, Colonel?” Sami asked, turning to Madari. A small burst of heat fluttered in Madari’s stomach as those kohl-smudged eyes turned to him.
“I hope so,” Madari said. “Sophia does usually manage to rope me in to help her. As long as there are no emergencies, I intend to be there.”
“Yes, I suppose your work is unpredictable,” Sami said. “You must have to react fast to situations.”
What did he think of the military? He wasn’t likely to be a supporter of the fundamentalists, not with his Western influences. But that didn’t have to mean he had much love for the establishment either. If that was the case would he say so here and provoke an argument with Madari? Which of course meant provoking an argument with Jahni too. He glanced at Jahni… who wasn’t there, Alex now standing where Jahni had been. Looking around the room he spotted Jahni standing near the wall, talking on his mobile phone, and knew instantly from the look on his face, that there was trouble.
The buzz of the phone in his pocket took Jahni’s attention from watching Madari and Sophia talk to Sami. Sophia had been paying the singer plenty of attention and Madari didn’t look happy about that. Jealousy? But he doubted Sophia had any real interest of that sort in the man, she was just responding to his charm.
Was Madari too? As the conversation went on Madari paid less attention to Sophia and more to Sami himself, almost as if he… but that was ridiculous. The phone broke Jahni out of those thoughts and he pulled it from his pocket. As he did so he met Alex’s eye, nodded and when he moved away from Sophia, she took his place, watching the crowd of people in the room.
Jahni moved to the edge of the crowd, the phone to one ear and his hand over the other to cut out the noise of the chattering people and the music playing in the background. As he listened to the duty officer, he grew colder.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. It’s on right now.”
Jahni turned as he reached the wall, looked around the room, searching. Ah, there, on a table behind Sami.
“I’ll call you back.” Madari was looking at him, but Jahni had no time to acknowledge that. He pushed his way through the crowd until he reached Sami, who gave him a curious look. But Jahni didn’t want him, he wanted to get at what was behind him. Only good manners kept him from shoving the other man aside.
“That television,” Jahni said. “Switch it on. Someone turn off that music.”
Sami stepped aside, with a look of surprise, perhaps not even aware there was a small television on the table behind him. Jahni stabbed at the power button and the sound of laughter burst from it. Some comedy show. He started to hit the channel buttons, hearing music, voices, more laughter.
“Turn off the music,” he demanded again.
“Kahil, what’s going on?” Madari asked. The background music cut out. Jahni stopped hitting buttons when he found the news broadcast. A man being interviewed by someone he recognised at once as Hamin of the Sunrise. In the corner of the screen words proclaimed this was an ‘exclusive tape’.
“Who is that?” someone said of the interviewee. Jahni turned to look at Madari, thought he saw a look of realisation, as Madari guessed the truth.
“I just had a call from the duty officer. The news claim it’s Saifullah.”
The room fell into silence, voices faltering as everyone turned to the television, the only voices now Hamin’s and the man he was interviewing. The timing was propitious, the next question rang out clearly in the quiet room.
“What is your long term ambition, Mr Saifullah? Are you able to tell us that?”
“Of course. I intend to see Qumar become an Islamic republic.”
“It’s treason,” Jahni said, as they arrived at the gatehouse of the barracks, after dropping off Sophia and Alex. “He said ‘republic’. That means he intends to depose the king. That makes it treason, pure and simple.”
Madari didn’t disagree, but didn’t answer this time, since Jahni had already said the same thing three times on the way over here. Madari wasn’t sure exactly what had made him drive here at this time of night. There wasn’t technically an emergency. There wasn’t much they could actually do. This was an important development of course, but they could analyse the tape in the morning. And even that, Military Intelligence would already be working on it, analysing every word spoken, every frame of film. But something told him he should be here now with his men and Jahni evidently felt the same.
Raian, the duty officer on call tonight, waited for them at the unit’s office suite.
“We’ve got a recording we made from the television, Colonel,” he said. “And Military Intelligence have already seized the original. They’re sending us a copy over as soon as they can, in case there’s any parts edited out of the broadcast.”
“Very good, Lieutenant. How are the men?”
“Well, it’s got their blood going for sure.”
Jahni snorted – clearly his blood was up too. Jahni and the men needed to talk about this. With no actual action to take, they’d be frustrated and looking to express their anger. Now Madari understood why he was here – to listen to the men. On-call nightshift was usually quiet and dull, the men doing little more than exercising and studying. They weren’t even allowed to use the shooting ranges, to avoid waking all those asleep in barracks and married quarters. Tonight’s shift would be livelier.
“Raian, have coffee and food sent to the men’s ready room.”
“Some to the officer’s ready room too, sir?”
“No, call everyone to the men’s ready room. Major Jahni and I will get changed and join you there in thirty minutes.”
“Yes, sir.” Raian hurried off.
“Thirty minutes?” Jahni said as he followed Madari in the direction of the locker room. It was rather a long time, but Madari shifted uncomfortably in clothes that felt heavy with sweat.
“Yes. I for one need a cold shower.”
The men agreed with Jahni about Saifullah, but Kadry went even further. In his opinion, Mr Hamin was a traitor too. Madari wasn’t sure he agreed with that part. Sometimes journalists had to interview men they disagreed with, for the sake of getting the truth out. Or to give them enough rope.
“Military Intelligence have Hamin down at their HQ now,” Raian said. He’d been keeping in almost constant contact with them tonight, making sure Madari had the most up to date information. Excellent work.
“He won’t tell them anything,” Jahni said. “He’ll say he has to protect his sources.” The men sitting around the room muttered their opinions about that.
Could Hamin be made to reveal anything about the arrangements for the interview? According to the news reports, the group had approached him and offered an interview, to take place at a location of their choosing. In a way, you had to admire the journalist’s courage for going to meet such dangerous men, but Madari kept that thought to himself.
They watched the tape again, and Madari studied Saifullah closely. His enemy. There were few clues about the location of the interview, a rough white-washed wall behind him with some dirt but no markings or decoration on it. When the tape switched to show Hamin asking questions, the same wall appeared to be behind him. Those “reverse shots” were filmed separately, they all concluded. One camera only.
The man calling himself Saifullah – a man whose real name they should know soon – was quite young, mid thirties perhaps. He had neatly clipped hair and wore a short, tidy beard. His clothes were traditional, unsurprisingly, and he wore a black and white checked kuffiyah. His white clothes looked rather… well not dirty, more the general greyness associated with many washings. But he spoke like an educated man, even a rich man, whose clothes would be well laundered, by other people. But was he living in a large house somewhere, or out in the hills with his men in one of the camps Madari’s men were still looking for? They’d destroyed several, but often many of the occupants escaped and Madari knew they’d set up elsewhere. And there seemed to be no shortage of recruits.
Would there be less of a shortage now? Saifullah was showing his face, making a step into the light. He must feel he was in a strong position to declare himself this way. Would this public appearance help or hinder him? Frankly, it could only help, because the face on that screen was not the face of a monster. He was even quite good looking, or at least pleasant. A ready smile, bright, intelligent eyes. He spoke in such a reasonable tone that if you weren’t listening to the actual words, he sounded very plausible. He was a man you’d buy a used car from without a qualm. He wasn’t a scowling, ranting lunatic that small children would be scared of.
“He looks like my cousin Majid,” one of the men had said earlier, while they watched the tape. And then talked about what a nice fellow his cousin was. And that’s exactly how Saifullah came across.
How he came across… yes, that was important here. Madari had seen interviews before with rebel warlords of one sort or another. He’d been a rebel warlord, though nobody had ever interviewed him on camera about it. Usually such men liked to show their strength. Even if they didn’t tote a weapon themselves, they’d be sure to be surrounded by big tough men, carrying enough weapons for a battalion.
But Saifullah had none of that. Madari felt sure there were heavily armed men nearby, but they were kept off camera. This man didn’t want to look like a terrorist leader, he wanted to look like someone you could trust to run the country. He wanted to look like a politician.
Jahni and the men were right. That last sentence he spoke was treason. He said he wanted to see Qumar become an Islamic republic, but Madari knew he meant more than that, that he’d missed off the second part of his ambition. He wanted to see the country become an Islamic republic – with him as its leader.
Jahni woke when someone shook his shoulder. It was Madari, looking far too alert for this time of the morning, Jahni thought. He sat up on a sofa in the officer’s ready room, where he and Madari and the other on-duty officers had gone after a few hours. A buffet breakfast was laid out on a table and Jahni strolled over there, rubbing his eyes and trying to flatten down his hair.
“Now why exactly did we decide to spend all night here?” he asked, as Madari handed him a cup of coffee.
“It was important,” Madari said. “Didn’t you feel it? The change?” Jahni and the other officers looked at him with polite incomprehension. “Gentlemen, I hope you all understand what we witnessed last night. That was a declaration of war.”
The room silenced in a heavy gloom. Perhaps some of the officers had been denying that, not wanting to face the truth. But Madari was right, Jahni thought, drinking his coffee. Saifullah was no longer simply a terrorist. He’d declared his intention to seize power. That was civil war.
So the men had changed. The atmosphere had changed. A new era in their lives had begun. Of course Madari saw it. He had the sensitivity to understand when things changed that way.
“Sir!” Raian hurried into the room, carrying a file. “Sir, I just got this from Military Intelligence. It’s Saifullah’s real name!” He slapped the file onto the table in front of Madari, with a triumphant look on his face. “Our liaison brought it straight round. Nobody else has it but them and us.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Madari said, his voice calm, but a smile on his face at Rain’s enthusiasm. “Please, get yourself some breakfast while we look at it.” He opened it on the table in front of him and the assembled offices all craned to look at it.
Jahni was standing the nearest to Madari, but tried not to crowd him, however eager he was to read the information himself. Madari would tell them what they needed to know. And there’d be ample time later to study it in detail. And much more information would follow than the couple of printed sheets in the file.
“Basit al-Shehade,” Madari read. He frowned. “That’s an old family. Quite wealthy and long time supporters of the monarchy.”
“Looks like we’ve got the black sheep of the family,” Jahni said. Saifullah had sounded like a well-bred man on the tape. His wealthy and respectable background was no surprise.
“Youngest son of the brother of the head of the family,” Madari went on. “Born 1960. Studied history at Cairo university between 1978 and 1981.”
Jahni started. “What?” He resisted the urge to grab the paper from Madari’s hand. “I started at Cairo in 1980! Are you saying he was there at the same time as me?”
“Apparently,” Madari said. “He’d have been in his third year while you were a freshman. Do you remember him?” He handed Jahni a photograph, actually a still frame from the video.
Jahni shook his head, trying to take fifteen years off that face, but felt no recognition. “No, I don’t think so.” Of course, he’d been in a different year, studying a different course. Still, there hadn’t been so many Qumari boys at the university that Jahni didn’t know most of them. But he didn’t recall this one. Perhaps Shehade spent more time in the library than Jahni, who’d specialised in mooching in coffee houses with his friends and watching the women. He handed the picture back. “I’m sorry, no, I don’t remember him.”
“Alright. After that he went to America to do a master’s degree. Stayed there for a few years then… oh.” He went silent, reading. The officers waited, impatience on their faces. “He came home to fight in the war against the Soviet backed regime.” Now Madari looked right at Jahni. “He was a guerrilla fighter.”
Jahni felt a chill up his spine. Who was this man? Some strange reflection of himself? Or was there some cosmic joking going on here, giving their enemy these teasing connections to them?
“He was active only in the south, near the city,” Madari continued. “Hmm, I’ll have to check if his commander then is still alive, talk to him.” He made a note on the paper. “After the restoration he held a teaching post at the university here. Wrote articles and preached at a mosque.”
“Preaching fundamentalism?” Raian asked.
“Yes,” Madari said, nodding. “Described as an idealist but not a radical and classed as harmless according to a report from those years.” He shook his head. “Then something must have changed. Four years ago, he dropped out of sight and nobody knows where he’s been or what he’s been doing since then. His family even reported him missing.”
“I think we can take some guesses at what he’s been doing,” Jahni said with some bitterness. He still dreamt of the most recent attempt, Rahama’s car exploding, not being able to see Madari in the smoke, not knowing if he was alive or dead.
Madari closed the file. “Well, that’s a summary of the man. I know there’ll be much more to study later. We should get hold of all the articles he wrote, and see if there are any recordings or transcripts of his sermons.”
Jahni grimaced, not looking forward to reading those. But they had to. Basic military principle – know your enemy.